clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The end of natural gas has to start with its name

The oil and gas industry didn’t invent the name. But it invented the myth of a clean fuel.

Natural gas is flared off at a plant outside of Cuero, Texas, in 2015.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Locals in the town of Fredonia, New York, noticed in the early 19th century how gas would sometimes bubble up in a creek and catch fire when lit. This wasn’t much more than a curiosity until 1821, when a businessman captured and sold it for fuel to Fredonia shops. This “inflammable air,” as one newspaper called it, was cheap to transport relative to the other lighting fuels of the day — whale oil for candles and gas produced from coal. From the start, “nature’s gas,” as it was nicknamed, was celebrated as the healthy and virtually inexhaustible miracle fuel of the future.

A big part of the early appeal was how much cleaner gas seemed than coal. In the 19th century, people could see and smell the particulate matter, sulfur, and nitrogen leaving a trail of smoggy air in cities. By comparison, natural gas is almost entirely made up of methane, a colorless, odorless gas that produces far fewer of these pollutants when burned.

What no one knew back then was that methane is pollution, too — just a different kind. A large body of scientific research now shows that gas, when it’s produced and when it’s consumed, poses a danger to human health and to the climate.

In the 19th century, this ignorance was understandable, but today most people still don’t appreciate how insidious gas fuel is. When the climate communications group Climate Nexus conducted a poll of 4,600 registered US voters last fall, 77 percent had a favorable view of natural gas, far higher than when asked about their views on methane. Less than a third were able to link that natural gas is primarily methane. In the same poll, a majority incorrectly answered that they think methane pollution is declining or staying about the same. Other surveys show similar results.

The reason for the disconnect is embedded in the very name, “natural gas.” The word “natural” tends to bias Americans to view whatever it is affixed to as healthy, clean, and environmentally friendly. Natural foods, natural immunity, and natural births are among the many buzzwords of the moment.

“The idea that we ought to do what’s natural, we ought to use what’s natural, and we ought to consume what’s natural is one of the most powerful and commonplace shortcuts we have,” said Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor who wrote Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Facts, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. “The term influences people’s attitudes toward natural gas. People are going to be more likely to see natural gas as better than it is; they’re more likely to see it as safer.”

The language has broader ripple effects on consumer choices and political decisions. Countries around the world have paradoxically encoded policies that incentivize continued gas production and consumption, even as 100 of them joined a voluntary Global Methane Pledge to slash methane by 30 percent in the next decade. The stakes have only grown as gas production rises to replace coal as the dominant fuel powering the electricity sector and millions of homes. Even as cities like New York and San Francisco are working to phase out gas appliances in their construction, gas production and exports have boomed to make the US the biggest exporter of liquified gas in the world.

Some climate advocates have already dropped the “natural” moniker in their legal filings, advertising, and communications, when talking about methane. They favor calling it “fossil gas” or “methane gas” — anything that’s more descriptive for a dangerous and explosive substance.

“I want my language to communicate the harms that are inherent in methane, in this climate-forcing substance. I want to be clear this is a threat to climate and public health,” said Matt Vespa, an attorney for the environmental legal nonprofit Earthjustice.

But the oil and gas industry isn’t ready to lose its biggest marketing advantage. If anything, industry language like clean, renewable, and responsible, has proliferated the past few years. The industry is actively at work to protect its careful branding as it tries to dodge climate scrutiny from regulators.

For over a century, the gas industry sold the public a myth about clean energy

Researchers at Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication had a hunch about gas that they had a chance to test in a peer-reviewed paper published last fall. They knew from previous public opinion polls that Americans are more likely to view natural gas far more favorably than other fossil fuels and see it as a solution for climate change, rather than a driver. Anthony Leiserowitz, one of the researchers and co-author of the paper, wanted to isolate the effect the word “natural” had on these views.

They found a big effect, in line with the large body of social science research showing how food products labeled “natural” lead people to consider them more eco-friendly and healthy. The paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, examined how 3,000 respondents viewed different synonyms for gas. More than half of participants had a positive view of natural gas, but the advantage shrank immediately when you called it “natural methane gas” or “methane gas,” as well as for “fossil gas” and “fracked gas.” A second survey asked 500 participants to word-associate with “natural gas.” Only a tiny portion of the respondents, fewer than 6 percent, associated natural gas with methane, showing, according to the researchers, “that the relationship between the two is not a typical top-of-mind association.”

The study unsurprisingly found that the word “natural” biases Americans in favor of gas. But it also showed a key ignorance that has been exploited by the gas industry: The public doesn’t understand that the gas is essentially the same as methane, a pollutant. Millions of Americans cook with gas every day, but they don’t necessarily realize it is a fossil fuel that’s being piped into their stoves.

Though the industry may not have invented the phrase natural gas, it has leaned into its advantages in decades of advertising. In 1930, one Pennsylvanian gas company promoted its fuel as clean, healthful heat. And the advertising wasn’t always limited to just gas: One pamphlet from the 1940s, dug up by Levinovitz in the research for his book, likened coal to a cake baked by sunlight and heat.

A 1930s ad for the Greenville Natural Gas Co. in Pennsylvania advertises “healthful heat,” similar to industry advertising of “clean gas” today.
A vintage pamphlet from a Philadelphia coal company advertises a “layer cake filled with ‘buried sunshine.’”
Provided by Alan Levinovitz

In a few instances, companies have simply opted to drop the word “gas” entirely, going even further to distance themselves from the fact that its core product is methane. In 1997, the gas utility company, Northwest Natural Gas, simply dropped gas from its name to become Northwest Natural.

The gas industry advocacy group Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future also omits gas from its name. It has blanketed Politico newsletters in the last year with ads promoting gas as a solution for climate change, linking to a website that depicts two young children playing with a skateboard. You have to read the fine print to understand what’s being advertised is switching from one fossil fuel (coal) to another. (The group has connections with the Democratic Party, and recently added two former Democratic senators, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, to its leadership council. Heitkamp told The Hill she would be working “changing hearts and minds of people in the climate movement.”)

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have been complaining about how the gas industry misled consumers for decades. In 1994, the environmental group Greenpeace filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, the independent body that has the power to fine and stop false advertising. Greenpeace urged the FTC to take action against the American Gas Association’s advertisements that had appeared in outlets like Newsweek, the New Republic, and Time. The complaint charged that the trade group’s claims the fuel was the solution for environmental problems and acid rain went too far to be reasonably supported by the science.

The FTC would have had the power to rein in this type of advertising as early as the 1990s. It didn’t use that power. The gas industry, free from FTC restrictions, has now embraced even more flagrant greenwashing 30 years later, with major consequences for climate change.

As gas’s reputation has soured, industry has gotten more creative

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is rising alarmingly fast, with human activities mostly to blame. It has taken scientists some time to track down exactly where all that methane was coming from, but in the last few years, more research has shown methane leaks to be a systemic problem in the oil and gas industry. Wherever you find gas, you can potentially find some methane leaking out — at drilling sites, from pipelines, in cities, and even inside the home.

As the gas industry’s reputation has soured, world leaders are starting to take a harder look at these methane leaks and cities are moving toward phasing out gas in new building construction. Rather than slowing down, the natural gas marketing campaigns have become even more aggressive.

Democratic politicians and some environmental groups a decade ago embraced the thinking that gas could be a “bridge fuel” to phase out the more polluting coal industry. They didn’t just favor policies that promoted gas over coal, but at times prioritized gas over wind and solar. The lobby group American Petroleum Institute has pivoted from saying gas is a bridge fuel to arguing it is the fuel of the future. One API leader argued in 2019, “I would urge that it’s not a bridge but a foundation and will be a foundation for years to come.”

Today, Democratic leaders including President Joe Biden have largely backed away from that language, as methane is more than 80 times more capable of warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide. A politician can’t claim to be serious about fighting climate change if he ignores that methane concentrations have hit record highs.

As Democrats have gotten to be more skeptical of “bridge fuel” rhetoric, it’s become common for gas producers and suppliers to claim that their gas is cleaner than the gas produced somewhere else. That’s where newer phrases have come from, like “responsibly sourced gas” and “renewable natural gas.” Other times, the gas industry rallies under the banner of the American flag, calling its product “freedom gas.”

Whatever the label, the industry has adopted shifting language to promote gas as a climate solution, rather than a climate problem.

In the last year, API, ExxonMobil, and a number of other oil companies ran a blitz of Facebook ads that emphasized “clean natural gas,” first reported by the Guardian. SoCalGas, a utility that supplies gas to 22 million California customers, has run online ads claiming it is “renewable.” One company that sells biogas trapped from landfills and sewage treatments, which is identical to methane, claims it is a renewable energy company producing “zero-emissions” from the “cleanest fuel in the world.”

The oil and gas industry is adamant that gas is essential to transitioning off of other fossil fuels. “Natural gas is the leading reason the U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions to generational lows, and exporting that progress abroad by enabling coal-reliant nations to turn to cleaner fuels is critical to reducing emissions globally,” said API spokesperson Megan Bloomgren in a statement emailed to Vox.

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in Norco, Louisiana, on August 21, 2019. Located about 10 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, the plant agreed to install $10 million in pollution monitoring and control equipment in 2018 to settle allegations that flares used to burn off emissions were operating in violation of the Clean Air Act.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The same type of rhetoric has shaped policy decisions that have much bigger stakes for climate investments. For example, in January, the commission overseeing the European Union became embroiled in a controversy when it said natural gas and nuclear power were sustainable investments, angering climate advocates, as first reported by Politico. The document declared that recognizing gas and nuclear energy can clean up climate pollution in the EU. This categorization would allow investors to count funding for future gas projects as sustainable and clean.

Climate campaigners are dealt a losing hand in these kinds of policy debates as long as gas is viewed as natural. It’s why they’re looking to challenge the way natural gas is used in company advertising.

In a bid to accelerate a transition away from gas, environmental groups have submitted a new complaint to the Federal Trade Commission to regulate misleading natural gas claims in advertising. Matt Vespa, an attorney for Earthjustice, hopes to see the FTC finally tackle the fossil fuel industry’s advertising claims. One important turning point could be how the FTC treats the issue in its upcoming Green Guide, updated every few years, on how food and cosmetic companies can use “natural” in their advertising.

While no single move can erase natural gas from our popular discourse overnight, Vespa hopes that a strong FTC stance against natural gas “will percolate into regulators’ minds that this is harmful.”

This language is “too dangerous to have around”

Climate advocates point to the polling, the greenwashing, and the policy implications as pressing reasons it’s important that everyone, especially the media, drop the natural gas label.

For Alan Levinovitz, the name natural gas is simply “too dangerous to have around.” Stopping calling it natural gas is the necessary first step for the world to move away from gas as a climate solution.

“My general rule of thumb for effective climate communication is don’t echo Big Oil sloganeering,” said Harvard scientist Geoffrey Supran, who researches oil disinformation. “So, at this point, it seems quite obvious that if they like using this term, the rest of us should avoid it.”

Following Supran’s logic, activists, political leaders, and some academics have shifted away from calling it natural gas.

But the name has had a 200-year head start. “It’s hard to penetrate the decades of ‘natural gas’ [messaging] just being ingrained in people’s brains,” said Vespa.

As for what should replace our default language, Anthony Leiserowitz’s 2021 Yale study had another finding that’s important to consider: Calling gas “fossil” or “fracked” could backfire if the objective is to reach as broad an audience as possible. The Yale polling found Republican voters viewed gas more favorably when it was called fossil gas or fracked gas, but more neutrally when it was called methane gas.

Despite these findings, some climate activists, politicians, and scientists have settled on calling it fossil gas anyway. Katharine Wilkinson stopped using natural gas in favor of simply gas or methane a few years ago, dropping all references to “natural” in the 2020 republished online version of the climate solutions book Drawdown and the podcast she co-hosts, A Matter of Degrees. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) prefers “fossil gas,” and the phrase can be found in several committee reports and legislation. And a handful of scientific papers over the years have used fossil gas.

If the movement to rename natural gas were to catch on, it would have bigger ripple effects on consumer choices and even political decisions. “It could shape your everyday behavior in terms of whether you decide to buy a natural gas stove or an induction stove,” Leiserowitz said. “These are marketing slogans and campaigns that have changed the way Americans think about what they do.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.